"Sister" Amy Duggan Archer-Gilligan
(1868–1962) was a Windsor, Connecticut nursing home proprietor and
serial killer who systematically murdered at least five people by
poison; one was her second husband, Michael Gilligan, and the rest
were residents of her nursing home. It is possible that she was
involved in more deaths; authorities found 48 deaths total from her
Childhood and Marriage
Amy E. Duggan was born in October 1868 to James
Duggan and Mary Kennedy in Milton (a suburb of Litchfield),
Connecticut, the eighth of ten children. She was taught at the Milton
school and went to the New Britain Normal school in 1890.
Amy married James Archer in 1897. A daughter, Mary
J. Archer, was born in December 1897. The Archers got their first job
as caretakers in 1901. They were hired to take care of John Seymour,
an elderly widower, and settled in his home at Newington, Connecticut.
Seymour died in 1904. His heirs turned the residence into a boarding
house for the elderly. The Archers were allowed to stay. They provided
care for the elderly for a fee and in turn paid rent to Seymour's
family. They ran the house under the name of "Sister Amy's Nursing
Home for the Elderly".
In 1907, Seymour's heirs decided to sell the house.
The Archers moved to Windsor, Connecticut and used their savings to
purchase a residence of their own. They soon converted it into their
own business, the Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm. James Archer
died in 1910 of apparently natural causes. The official cause of death
was Bright's disease, a generic term for kidney diseases. Amy had
taken out an insurance policy on him a few weeks before his death, so
she was able to continue running the Archer Home.
In 1913, Amy married her second husband, Michael W.
Gilligan, a widower with 4 adult sons. He was reportedly wealthy and
interested in both Amy and in investing in the Archer Home. Michael
died 20 Feb 1914. The official cause of death was "acute bilious
attack", in other words "severe indigestion". Archer-Gilligan was once
again financially secure: In their short marriage her new husband had
drawn up a will, leaving her all his estate.
Killlings and capture
Between 1907 and 1917, there were 60 deaths in the
Archer Home. Relatives of her clients had grown suspicious as they
tallied the large numbers of its residents dying. Only 12 had died
between 1907 and 1910. 48 had died between 1911 and 1916. Among them
was Franklin R. Andrews, an apparently healthy man.
On the morning of May 29, 1914, Andrews was doing
some gardening in the Archer house. His health suddenly collapsed
within a day. He was dead by the evening. The official cause of death
was gastric ulcer. His sister Nellie Pierce inherited his personal
papers. She soon noted occasions where Archer-Gilligan was pressing
Andrews for money. Archer-Gilligan's clients showed a pattern of dying
not long after giving their caretaker large sums of money.
As the deaths continued, Pierce reported her
suspicions to the local district attorney. He mostly ignored her.
Pierce then took her story to The Hartford Courant, a
newspaper. On May 9, 1916, the first of several articles on the
"Murder Factory" was published. A few months later, the police started
seriously investigating the case. The investigation took almost a year
to complete, but the results were interesting. The bodies of Gilligan,
Andrews, and three other boarders were exhumed. All five had died of
poisoning, either by arsenic or strychnine. Local merchants were able
to testify that Archer-Gilligan had been purchasing large quantities
of arsenic, supposedly to "kill rats". A look into Gilligan's will
helped establish it was actually a forgery, written in Amy's
Archer-Gilligan was arrested and tried for murder,
originally on five counts; ultimately, her lawyer managed to get the
charges reduced to a single count (Franklin R. Andrews). On June 18,
1917, a jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to death.
Archer-Gilligan appealed and was granted a new trial in 1919. She
pleaded insanity, while Mary Archer testified that her mother was
addicted to morphine. Archer-Gilligan was nonetheless found guilty of
second degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
In 1924, Archer-Gilligan was declared temporarily
insane and was transferred to Connecticut Hospital for the Insane in
Middletown, where she remained until her death on 23 April 1962.
The case attracted wide publicity at the time, and
has been cited as an inspiration for the play and later film,
Arsenic and Old Lace. Some have also claimed that hers was the
first for-profit nursing home in the United States.
True crime story behind classic comedy, 'Arsenic
& Old Lace'
By Mara Bovsun - NYDailyNews.com
January 17, 2010
Serial killers, as a rule, are not really great
material for a laughfest. Nevertheless, the sordid case of Amy
Archer-Gilligan has kept audiences in stitches for decades.
It's estimated that at least 20 people and some
estimate as many as 100, including her husbands, died by her hand.
Yet, 20 years after her crimes were revealed, a playwright, Joseph
Kesselring, would find it all terribly funny and pen a comedy destined
to become a classic - "Arsenic and Old Lace".
In the play, the Connecticut Borgia is transformed
into two sisters - Abby and Martha Brewster, one a "darling lady in
her sixties" and the other, "a sweet elderly woman with Victorian
charm." The victims were aged men who lived in their boarding house.
The quaint weapon of choice: Elderberry wine, spiked with arsenic.
The real-life character was a stern eccentric who
ran a convalescent home in Windsor, Connecticut, at the start of the
Little is known about Archer-Gilligan's early life,
other than that she was born in 1873 and was married for the first
time in 1896 to James Archer.
In 1901, the couple found employment in Newington,
Connecticut, as in-home caretakers for elderly widower John Seymour.
The Archers lived in his home during the final years of his life. When
Seymour died in 1904, they stayed on there as renters, raising money
by caring for elderly boarders.
In 1907, Seymour's California-based relatives sold
the house, so the Archers moved to Winston. They bought a brick house
and opened the Archer Home for Aged People. They ran the home together
until 1910, when Mr. Archer died of Bright's disease, a catchall
phrase for kidney failure of unknown origin.
By 1913, the widow had snared husband number two,
Michael Gilligan, but that didn't last long either, with his untimely
death after just three months of wedded bliss. The cause was an "acute
bilious attack," in other words, severe indigestion.
On its own, Gilligan's demise might not have raised
too many eyebrows, but the Archer home had turned into a death trap,
especially for the men under a special payment plan. Residents could
pay on either a weekly basis, or, for one flat fee of $1,000, the good
widow guaranteed care for as long as they breathed. Those in this
latter category apparently had very poor health, because they kept
Within a few year, it was clear it was not a matter
of natural causes.
"Police Believe Archer Home for Aged a Murder
Factory," screamed the Hartford Courant on May 9, 1916.
Since the nursing home opened in 1907, there had
been 60 deaths and 48 of them had occurred since 1911. One of the
departed, Franklin R. Andrews, 61, had a sister, Nellie Pierce, who
found the circumstances of his death suspicious, to say the least.
The morning of May 29, 1914, Andrews was seen
cheerfully working on the lawn at the Archer house. By the following
evening, he was dead.
Initially Pierce chalked it up to life's
misfortunes, but then she looked through his letters and personal
papers and discovered that Archer-Gilligan had been badgering Andrews
for money. Pierce shared her suspicions with the district attorney and
when she got little response there, she went to the Hartford Courant.
The paper's investigation lasted several months and
provided the basis for a police probe, which lasted a year. Nearly two
years after his death, Andrews' body was exhumed and an autopsy found
arsenic, enough to kill several men. Also, the examiner found no sign
that he had "gastric ulcers," as was noted on the original death
Her second husband's body was exhumed, as well as
four other boarders. All had died of poisoning, either arsenic or
Also, an examination of Michael Gilligan's will,
drawn up the night before his death and appointing his wife
administrator, appeared to be in her handwriting.
More evidence came from local merchants who said
that Archer-Gilligan had purchased large quantities of arsenic. "To
kill rats," she said.
A bad case of "prison psychosis" made it seem
unlikely that she'd come to trial, but on June 18, 1917, the woman
suspected of at least a score of murders faced the jury. After a
four-week trial and four hours of deliberation, they found her guilty
and sentenced her to die on the gallows in November.
The convicted poisoner appealed and, due to a
technicality, she was granted a new trial in June 1919. Insanity was
her defense the second time around, with alienists declaring her crazy
and her 19-year-old daughter, Mary E. Archer, insisting that her
mother was a morphine fiend. The trial ended abruptly on July 1, with
a plea of guilty of murder in the second degree, which carried a life
sentence. She was a model prisoner until 1924, when she was declared
hopelessly insane and transferred to a mental hospital. There she
stayed, until April 1962, when she died at the age of 89.
Her story, though, lives on in the comedy that
opened on Broadway at the Fulton Theater, on January 10, 1941, to rave
reviews. "Arsenic and Old Lace," which featured Boris Karloff playing
a killer who looked like Boris Karloff, made the idea of wholesale
None other than Frank Capra later made it into a
film, starring Cary Grant. As one critic crowed, "You wouldn't believe
homicidal mania could be such fun!"
Whatever Went Wrong With Amy?
By Bill Ryan - The New York Times
March 2, 1997
In a way, Amy Duggan Archer Gilligan might be
considered a pioneer in health care in Connecticut. In the early part
of this century, Mrs. Gilligan operated a home ''for elderly people
and chronic invalids,'' in the town of Windsor. She offered some
enticements for living there: Most of her clients were elderly men and
they could get lifetime care simply by signing over their life
insurance policies to her or by giving her $1,000, a healthy amount of
money at the time, when they checked in.
In 1916, however, Mrs. Gilligan was arrested. State
police, after an investigation, concluded that she had shortened the
lives of up to two dozen or so men by poisoning them with arsenic. One
of them was Michael W. Gilligan, her second husband. The union had
lasted three months when Mr. Gilligan turned up dead.
The arrest of Mrs. Gilligan and her trial in 1917,
after many bodies had been exhumed, rocked the state; there were
headlines that would do credit to today's tabloids: ''Police Believe
Archer Home for Aged a Murder Factory,'' screamed The Hartford
Courant's Page 1 on the morning of May 9, 1916, the day after Mrs.
Gilligan was arrested. It set the tone.
Mrs. Gilligan, a prim woman approaching her
mid-40's, was tried for one murder only, at the discretion of the
state's attorney. She was convicted and sentenced to be hanged.
But the verdict was eventually reversed on a
technicality and during a second trial she pleaded guilty to
second-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. She was
incarcerated at the state prison, then a grim old fortress near
Wethersfield Cove that normally housed only men. Subsequently Mrs.
Gilligan was certified as insane and spent her final years at the
state mental hospital in Middletown. In 1962 she died there at the age
of 89, having outlived nearly everyone involved in the case. But her
story has never died.
For more than eight decades of this century, it has
never been totally out of the public consciousness for a couple of
reasons. The first is the macabre nature of the case itself, inspiring
its retelling in various publications from time to time.
The other is that it was also the inspiration for
-- of all things -- a stage comedy. Many people know of Amy Gilligan,
although perhaps not by name.
In the late 1930's, a New Yorker named Joseph
Kesselring, who had read about the Gilligan case as a boy, decided to
write a play about it. He journeyed to Connecticut to talk to the
people involved and to study court records. The result was ''Arsenic
and Old Lace,'' the Amy Gilligan story with a lot of poetic license by
He transformed Amy into a pair of Brooklyn
spinsters, Abby and Martha Brewster, who took to murdering elderly
gentlemen by giving them elderberry wine spiced with arsenic and then
burying them in the cellar. The cast of characters included an equally
dotty brother, Teddy, who thought he was Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan
Hill, forever yelling ''CHARGE!'' and running up the stairs, and two
nephews, the sane Mortimer and the homicidal Jonathan.
The play opened on Broadway early in 1941 and
stayed there for three years, allowing people a pleasant few hours'
escape from the real homicide en masse going on in World War II. The
stage run was followed by a Frank Capra movie, starring Cary Grant as
Mortimer, that also was a big commercial success.
Both the stage play and movie have lived on
healthily since, the play in countless productions varying from high
school drama clubs to a successful revival on Broadway in 1986, the
movie on video cassette.
One new bit of evidence for the abiding interest in
the Amy Gilligan story is a book to be published this spring by
Rainbow Press in Torrington.
It is called ''Chronicles of Milton: Village Left
Behind by Time.'' Milton is a section of the town of Litchfield and
the book has been written by a dozen members of the Milton Woman's
Club, some of whom once attended a one-room schoolhouse in the
village. Each has written one chapter, in a cooperative effort to
detail the history of the village from 1740 and tell about some of the
more fascinating people who have lived there.
One of the latter was Amy Duggan.
The Duggan family, says one club member, lived on
Saw Mill Road, in a house that still stands. One of Amy Duggan's
sisters was an invalid, because of a jump or fall from a second floor
window. There was a brother who would stand in front of a mirror all
day, playing the violin.
As Hazel W. Perret, one of the authors. put it, Amy
Duggan, and her eventual infamy, is only one small part of the book.
''And the rest of it is very good.'' Conversely, she will admit that a
bit of sensationalism doesn't hurt to sell some copies.
Not that the club needs much help. It is paying
Pioneer Press to run off 500 copies, 200 of which have been sold in
advance, Mrs. Perret said.
In Windsor, 40 miles from Litchfield, interest in
Amy Duggan Archer Gilligan continues.
''We get a lot of queries, particularly from
students,'' said Laura Kahkonen, director of the Windsor Public
Library. Some people ask about the old home for the aged, she said,
and then go to check it out.
There it still sits, on a pleasant street called
Prospect, just off the center of town, a three-story brick structure
with little ornamentation. Today it contains three apartments, its
lurid past put behind it.
At the Windsor Historical Society, people drop in
to check the file on Amy Gilligan, said Connie Thomas, a staff member.
Many visitors also want to watch a video cassette of a television
pilot called ''Local Legends.'' The story of Amy Gilligan was shot in
1991 by an independent production company as one of the initial
offerings for the series, but the series was never sold.
On one recent day, Ruth Bonito, who is active in
the historical society of the nearby town of Windsor Locks, was at the
Windsor society, checking out the Gilligan file and advancing a theory
not often heard about the old case.
She believes that Amy Duggan Archer Gilligan, a
woman vilified for most of this century, just might have been
As far as she can determine, Mrs. Bonito said, all
the evidence against Mrs. Gilligan was circumstantial. She did buy
arsenic but said it was to control rats at her home. She never
confessed to any crimes. The home she ran did have a high death rate,
but that didn't prove the men who lived there were poisoned.
Besides, said Mrs. Bonito, Mrs. Gilligan was a
church-going woman who donated a stained-glass window to a Windsor
church. Is this the kind of woman who systematically murders people
And then, Mrs. Bonito added, there is even some
question about the post-exhumation arsenic found. Mrs. Bonito said she
has been informed by Connecticut's state archeologist, Nicholas
Bellantoni, that arsenic was once used extensively by American
embalmers. Could that explain the arsenic found in the bodies from
Mrs. Gilligan's home?
''I had heard the story of Amy Gilligan for years
and I never doubted it until now,'' said Mrs. Bonito.
Dr. Bellantoni confirms that arsenic was indeed
widely used for embalming, from the Civil War to about 1910 and cites
a recent publication of the Interior Department that warns that
elevated levels of arsenic near old cemeteries is only now beginning
to emerge. However, Dr. Bellantoni says he is not sure that those
facts can be connected to the Gilligan case.
One thing is sure however. Amy Duggan Archer
Gilligan does have a certain fascination.
Amy Gilligan (1901-1928) was
known for her nurturing tonics and nutritional meals at her private
nursing home in Windsor, Connecticut. That was until it was discovered
that she had added arsenic to her recipe, resulting in the deaths of
many of her patients and five husbands, all of whom had named her in
their wills right before their untimely deaths.
Sister Amy's Nursing Home for
In 1901, Amy and James Archer opened Sister Amy's
Nursing Home for the Elderly in Newington, Connecticut. Despite not
having any real qualifications for taking care of the elderly, the
couple's nurturing and caring ways impressed their wealthy patrons.
The home was such a success that in 1907 the couple opened Archer Home
for the Elderly and Infirm, a new and more modern facility in Windsor,
After the move things began to take a turn for the
worse. Healthy patients began to die without any recognizable cause
other than possible old age. James Archer also died suddenly and the
heart-broken Amy lifted her chin, dried her tears and headed to claim
the insurance money on a life policy she had purchased on her husband
in the weeks before his death.
After James' death,
patients at the Archer Home began dying at an almost predictable rate,
but the coroner, a close friend of the now deceased James and his wife
Amy, determined the deaths were due to natural causes of old age. Amy,
in the meantime, met and married Michael Gilligan, a rich widower, who
offered to help bankroll the Archer Home.
Not long after the
two wed, Gilligan also died suddenly from what coroner described as
natural causes. Before his death he did manage to have a will drawn,
leaving all of his wealth to his precious wife, Amy.